Live: Sonic Youth Get Caught Between Bad Moon Rising and New York City


Sonic Youth w/Wild Flag, Kurt Vile
Williamsburg Waterfront
Friday, August 12

Better than: Listening to a playlist of the set on Spotify.

Just before Sonic Youth played “Starfield Road,” from 1994’s Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star, at Friday night’s Williamsburg Waterfront gig, singer-guitarist Thurston Moore held things up. “Mark, what’s the chords?” he asked of bassist Mark Ibold, who had been playing in Pavement at the time that record came out. “We started rehearsing for this show two days ago,” Moore said, explaining the pause. “We’ve decided to go back deep. It’s been a while since we’ve played some of these. Mark was always in the audience, so he knows [the chords].” Then, as Ibold and fellow bassist Kim Gordon began pounding out actual notes, Moore made head-swirling feedback and noise with his guitar as he ranted and raved about dirty sex for two minutes. Proper chords, indeed.

Then again, it’s not like Sonic Youth were ever about playing the right notes. Friday’s concert was informally meant to celebrate the 30th anniversary of New York’s noise-rock pioneers, who played the first gig with their core lineup (Moore, Gordon and guitarist Lee Ranaldo) in July 1981 at Tribeca’s now-defunct Just Above Midtown/Downtown Gallery. In their first decade, they transitioned from playing post-no-wave experimentalism to writing noise-fueled pseudo-pop songs during which Moore and Ranaldo would mutilate their guitar strings with drumsticks onstage. They flirted with mainstream alt-rock in the early ’90s before splitting their duties between static-laden rock songs and full-on expeditions into the avant-garde on their own SYR label (culminating with the almost-all-feedback Silver Session for Jason Knuth in 1998). And for the past 10 years, when their members haven’t been working on myriad side projects, Sonic Youth have dabbled in writing Neil Young-style classic rock that they surround with what has become their trademark ambience.

They focused Friday’s set list, though, most heavily on their mid-’80s art-rock adventures. Rarely played songs from their 1985 record Bad Moon Rising—”Brave Men Run (In My Family),” “Death Valley ’69,” “I Love Her All the Time” and “Ghost Bitch”—made up the majority of the set. Whether they planned it puposefully or not, the set list was fitting; those songs, as well as Evol‘s “Tom Violence,” were recorded at a studio in Gowanus, 15 minutes away from the Williamsburg Waterfront. This was a commemoration of history, after all.

Hardly the sentimental types, Sonic Youth played each song with abandon and did not acknowledge their anniversary. As they rattled through the first part of their set, rarely stopping between songs, the audience didn’t really know when to applaud, though the line “New York City is forever, kitty,” in “Kotton Krown” got some hearty cheers. But it wasn’t until after Moore came clean about not knowing the chords to “Starfield Road” that the band members started talking more. Upon introducing “What We Know,” from 2009’s The Eternal, Moore said, “Later tonight, a large rattlesnake is going to come down on Manhattan and introduce us to 2012.” And, honestly, as ridiculous as his words were, it was a nice break in form. This was the first time that any band had spoken at length to the audience—opener Kurt Vile, who made a mean J. Mascis meets My Bloody Valentine racket, only addressed the audience by saying, “You guys are beautiful. The sun’s in my eyes, but I think so.” And the supergroup Wild Flag, which features ex-members of Sleater-Kinney, Helium, and the Minders, only offered standard pleasantries like “thanks for coming out” in the middle of their excellent set of organ-accented indie. But, after three decades, it’s clear that Sonic Youth now how to work a crowd.

Only at around 9:20 did Sonic Youth begin to show the qualities of a band celebrating its pearl anniversary; after they’d played for about an hour they forced breaks for three encores into the end of their set, when they knew they had a curfew. A younger Sonic Youth might have tried to fit in two more songs instead, and, as such, the Brooklyn audience seemed downright hostile during the breaks. As the band left the stage after the first encore, “Sugar Kane” (which got the night’s biggest cheers), one fan screamed, “We paid for this concert! Play for us!” And it took about the duration of a song for them to come back to play “Psychic Hearts,” off Moore’s 1995 solo album of the same name—a song that, possibly, had never been played by the whole band before this show. Considering treats like this, encore-indulging is only worthy of minor grumbling.

For the third encore, Moore told the venue, “You can leave the lights up,” before sharing a non-sequitur story about motorcycle clubs in Connecticut. He then introduced the band’s final encore, “Inhuman” (from 1983’s Confusion Is Sex), by saying, “This song is about having a temper tantrum, and not in a good way.” He then pointed out the full moon and talked about the positive energy coming down on us before returning to his motorcycle-club rant.

The song seemed to be the most cathartic. Ranaldo played an electric ukulele, which he bashed against his guitar (a respite from the drumsticks he and Moore had used all night); Gordon and Ibold crouched on the floor as they made feedback; Moore poured a bottle of water up and down the neck of his guitar after singing, “I learned my lesson the hardest way.” In many ways, this concert—which is the only full one in the U.S. the band has announced this year—encapsulated everything the band has gone through to get to this point: the instrument abuse, the pop songs, even the rock-star encores. And Moore closed the night with an appropriate aphorism: “With the power of love, anything is possible.” Even 30 years of Sonic Youth.

Critical bias: While in college, I once begged the manager of the record store I worked at to let me design our store’s Sonic Youth wall display. (I did.)

Overheard: “Do you want me to sit on you right now?! Because I will. It’s one of my best qualities.”

Random notebook dump I: During “Tom Violence,” some guy tried to climb the bubble-wrapped flagpole behind me and didn’t get very far. He yelled out louder than the band, “It doesn’t work!”

Random notebook dump II: In honor of Sonic Youth’s 1988 B-side “Non-Metal Dude Wearing Metal Tee,” I kept track of just that. I saw two Black Sabbath shirts (1978 tour, pshaw!), one Converge, a Danzig, and one for Faith No More. I know I’m pushing it with FNM, but I gotta say, as far as non-metal shirts go, I’ve never seen more Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and STP shirts in one place since 1994 than at this show. Also, I saw a single William S. Burroughs Naked Lunch shirt.

Set list:
Brave Men Run (In My Family)
Death Valley ’69
Kotton Krown
Kill Yr. Idols
Eric’s Trip
Sacred Trickster
Calming the Snake
Starfield Road
I Love Her All the Time
Ghost Bitch
Tom Violence
What We Know
Drunken Butterfly

Sugar Kane

Psychic Hearts